Take five run-of-the-mill cyclists, throw them together on the morning you’re setting off on a 500-mile journey through the Highlands and see how they get on.
In essence, that was our plan as we decided to see what all the fuss was about on the North Coast 500.
The route launched in spring 2015 and has become one of the world’s must-do road trips, with thousands coming to follow the map from Inverness. Its success even took those behind the project, primarily the North Highland Initiative, by surprise but it has since won recognition from far and wide.
It has brought a much-needed increase in tourism spend to the north-west and far north of Scotland, and in some quarters has led to demands for upgrades to the road system, with much of the route up the west coast following single-track roads.
For me, though, these winding tracks through wild countryside are part of the reason that the route holds such charm for people.
Certainly by bicycle it’s wonderful to be rolling along those old roads, surrounded by magnificent mountains and coastal scenery.
uch of the route was familiar to me from previous trips – by bike and by car – but to tackle the full route from the saddle was a challenge I relished.
There was to be no record-breaking attempts for us, just a social, leisurely multi-day bike ride but one that would push us all beyond our comfort zone.
Over the six days we pedalled the 520 miles around the north coast of Scotland, four of the days involved my four longest ever bike rides. It was no easy task but, with pleasant weather much of the way and the wind at our backs more than in our faces, it was a truly enjoyable experience.
The cameraderie of riding the NC500 in a group really helped to keep us going, and with a back-up van and driver for extra support we gave ourselves every chance of completing the journey.
After all this organising, we were free to enjoy the cycling and take in the wonderful scenery that the route offers from start to finish.
There are plenty of climbs to focus the mind on the road ahead but there’s an equal amount of downhill where you can let the freewheel take the strain and appreciate this phenomenal part of Scotland.
The big climb – and one of the many highlights of the NC500 – is the now famous Bealach na Ba. The pass of the cattle climbs from sea level to 622m in the space of six miles, with expansive views from its summit over to the Cuillin mountains on Skye.
Unfortunately for us, the bealach road was a somewhat different experience, with thick fog meaning negotiating the single-track road and its tight hairpin bends was no easy task. Car headlights would emerge from the gloom when they were almost upon you, and then there was the mental challenge of climbing this seemingly never-ending road without being able to see even the next corner, let alone the top.
We started the climb at the end of our first day, reaching the base of the climb after 71 miles cycling from Inverness. It was a relief to reach the top and freewheel down the far side to Applecross for a well-earned rest at the hostel.
If we thought that was the worst of the hills out of the way, though, we would have been mistaken. The NC500 follows a twisting, circuitous route up the glorious west coast from here, through some of the most beautiful mountains in Scotland.
Going slowly is no hardship, as long as you have the gear ratios to sit back and appreciate it! Apart from the challenge of the bealach, there is only one absolute chain cruncher of a climb – and that comes on the shore road between Lochinver and Kylesku.
With more than 30,000ft of ascent over the 520 miles, you really need to be prepared for almost constant big hills on some days. Train enough, and the reward of completing this spectacular route is within the grasp of any regular leisure cyclist.
Our six-day route averaged 85 miles a day, so you also need to be prepared for consecutive long days on the road, as well as being confident riding in traffic and on different types of road.
The busiest section is the A9 on the return to Inverness from Latheron – a long stretch of trunk road that would benefit from a dedicated cycle path. The east coast has its own unique beauty and a safer and slower route would allow more appreciation of this in the latter stages of the ride.
At our pace, this only affected the last day of cycling and, even then, we took to quieter roads from Tain when the opportunity allowed.
For much of the route you are riding on quiet single carriageway and single-track roads, and there’s no better way to spend a day in the saddle than travelling through miles of Highland countryside.
The NC500 takes you below Torridon’s distinctive Munros, along lochs and through glens, hugging the coast and visiting many villages on the way. I even spotted a white-tailed sea eagle above my head when riding on the west coast.
There’s a reason the touring route has become so popular – in fact, there are lots of reasons. Taking the challenge of completing it under your own steam and exploring all the corners of the Highlands, from Durness in the north-west to John O’Groats in the east, is well worth doing.
It’s a trip I’ll remember with some very happy memories for many years to come.
Here’s how the route panned out for us over the six days: